Octavia Spencer is taking control.
While it sounds strange to presume that the career of an Oscar-winning actress and producer with over 125 credits is somehow outside of her control, Spencer is taking her sweet-as-pie image and burning it with “Ma.” Well, she’s actually getting it drunk, stalking it, sewing up its lips, and generally terrorizing it, but that’s beside the point.
In the horror thriller, Spencer plays a lonely veterinary aide named Sue Anne who starts partying with a group of high schoolers after they ask her to buy them booze. Sue Anne invites them over to her home, and Ma’s basement quickly becomes the hotspot for teens looking to drink. But as quickly as the fun begins, everything — including Ma — starts to unravel, and eventually the party is over, for everyone.
Spencer, at the film’s premiere in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday night, highlighted the importance of having the opportunity to play a role like Sue Ann and to lead a horror film as a black woman.
“Lupita Nyong’o had a film debut at Sundance [the upcoming thriller “Little Monsters”], but before that and before “Ma”, these types of roles haven’t really been available to women of color. And I think it’s about time that changes,” Spencer told Variety on the red carpet. “Any young actress, should she want to star in a romantic comedy that should be available to her, if she wants to star in a horror film, that should be available to her. So, it’s exciting to play something outside of the three archetypes that people like to see me in.”
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Jason Blum, a producer on “Ma,” also weighed in on seeing more leading roles in this genre for women of color. “For so long it hasn’t been the case with horror movies, so I think the audience is starved to see that,” he explained. “We’ve done a lot of movies with African American casts [including collaborating with Jordan Peele on “Get Out” and this year’s “Us,” which also starred Nyong’o] and particularly playing parts that African Americans don’t typically play. It’s good business. There’s a real pent-up demand for it.”
When the trailer for the film debuted in February, it was an instant hit and a great deal of the fan reaction centered around how different this character is from Spencer’s on- and off-screen persona. And it was exactly that type of subversion that Spencer was looking for when trying to select her next role. The actress was tired of being offered the same kinds of characters, so she’d asked her good friend and “The Help” director Tate Taylor for help.
“Well, [Taylor] said, ‘I found this horror film’ and I stopped him. I said, ‘You know, black people always die within the first 15 minutes of a horror film,’” Spencer explained, laughing. (Note: In Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II,” Spencer’s Nurse Daniels is one of the first to die.) “And he said, ‘Well, not only do you not die within the first 15 minutes, you get to kill everybody. And I thought, ‘Well, okay, sign me up. That’ll be interesting to do.’”
“I just like talented people and this is my best friend and I’m glad that, if it can help change the ridiculously stubborn narrative that we’ve all lived with, I’m glad to be a part of that,” Taylor said of subverting stereotypes about black people in horror movies.
Tate did that by offering Spencer a part originally written as a white woman, and that Spencer notes “still is,” though she — a black woman — ultimately played the character. By why did Taylor think of his sweet friend to play this sociopath? “Well, I’ve seen it before — we lived together for seven years, so “Ma” is autobiographical,” he joked.
“I knew she loved this kind of material on subject matter,” he continued. Our TV was always on murder shows, “Forensic Files”, so it was just really cool to bring this opportunity to her to let her just let the wheels come off and she does.”
“It’s a little disturbing to see her as this character. It’s a lot of fun though too,” Allison Janney, who co-stars in the film, admitted. “I know Octavia and I know how much fun she had doing this movie, one of the best times she’s ever had doing a movie.”
Janney, a longtime friend of Spencer and Tate and who also worked with the pair on “The Help,” got a special shout-out during the introduction of “Ma’ when Spencer revealed that Janney took time out of her 2018 Oscar campaign to come to Mississippi and film this role.
The best supporting actress Oscar-winner explained why she couldn’t pass up a chance to work with her friends, especially the chance to work on her own first horror movie, though she didn’t get to “really commit atrocities and [instead] something incredible happens to me at the hands of my friend here.”
“[Octavia] is just making my head spin with how much she commands. She knows what she’s doing in some innate way. She knows she knows how to be in Hollywood. She knows how to be a woman of power. She knows how to lead with class and she sees everyone from the craft service person on up. She knows how to treat people with respect. I’m just inspired by her,” Janney said, applauding Spencer as the film’s executive producer. “I know people are going to love her in it, because who doesn’t love Octavia? She’s so beloved and rightfully so.”
“Ma” debuts on May 31.